Review by Amb. (ret.) Michael W. Cotter
World Order, by Henry Kissinger, Penguin Press: New York, N.Y., 2014, ISBN-13: 978-1-59420-614-6, 374 pp. $21.60 (Hardcover), $18.99 (Kindle)
A major challenge for writers explaining current events for general audiences is to provide sufficient historical context without losing the intended focus. The challenge is particularly difficult when the goal is as broad as describing the current state of the world and outlining the challenges facing it, as Dr. Kissinger is attempting to do in World Order. The result, in a way, can best be described as several extended essays intended to encapsulate his world view past, present and future.
Dr. Kissinger is, of course, one of the best known and ablest proponents of realpolitik, what Wikipedia defines as “…politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral or ethical premises.” In his view “world order” is dependent on power; who has it and how it is distributed, preferably in balance. Thus he begins with an analysis of European history, from the Thirty Years’ War to the present, to demonstrate how the balance of power concept grew out of the series of treaties that established the “Peace of Westphalia” in the 18th century, and how after two major 20th century conflicts its relevance is diminished.
Â He then explores concepts of order in the Middle East from the Ottoman period to the present, with a detour to contrast U.S. and Iranian approaches. He describes East Asia from the appearance there of Europeans in the 15th century and muses on whether its future will reflect partnership or confrontation. In later chapters he analyzes several relationships as they pertain to world order now and in the future: how the U.S. and Iran differ on world order, how Asia might be ordered, and the rather unique American view of the role of their country in bring about world order. He then explores the impact of the nuclear, cyber and digital “eras” on the prospects for world order. Finally, he ends with what would be an excellent essay even without the background provided by the rest of the book — how world order has evolved, and where it might/could/should go from here.
Next, he takes two long chapters to describe how the American concepts of world order developed, contrasting Wilsonian idealism to the pragmatism of Theodore Roosevelt. He uses examples from conflicts in which the U.S. has engaged to show that the inability to decide upon which ideal to base foreign policy has left the U.S. an “ambivalent superpower.” Unfortunately, that analysis reflects his bias toward the Republican administrations in which he served or which he has advised. His assessment of President Nixon focuses on the man’s perceptive analysis of foreign policy (for which Dr. Kissinger gives Nixon full credit, downplaying his own contribution) while mentioning the domestic scandal that led to his resignation merely in the context of how it prevented him from fulfilling his plans. He can’t say enough about the qualities of President Reagan, and is complimentary of President George W. Bush’s strategic vision (while omitting reference to Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and others who many believe were largely responsible for policies that turned out to have unexpected consequences). Among Democratic presidents, only Harry S Truman is given much credit. And in the sixth year of his presidency, Barack Obama merits barely one paragraph.
Unfortunately, the Westphalian balance of power involved a relatively small, contiguous geographic area — Europe from the Atlantic to the Ural Mts. Of course, from the sixteenth through most of the twentieth centuries that meant a good part of the world, as Europeans ruled most of the remainder. Beyond Europe, his analysis of various concepts of world order — those of Middle Eastern countries that see order in light of adherence to religious dogma; China, that views it in the pure sense of each nation inviolate in its own space and not interfering with others; and the U.S., with its perceived mandate to export its moral principles and political system across the globe — primarily emphasize the clear differences that divide them. And Dr. Kissinger really has no answer for this dilemma.
So the best he can do in his final chapter is to conclude that the “structure” of world order in the 21st century is lacking in what he calls “four dimensions:” agreement on the nature of the state and on the political and economic organizations that must govern that order; effective mechanisms for consultation between great powers on critical issues; and the fact that the ambiguous role of the U.S., torn between its interest in stability versus promotion of its principles, is irreconcilable with the idea of national sovereignty.
That said, Dr. Kissinger’s inability to describe an easy solution to the challenges facing world order in the 21st century does not detract from the value of this book. Indeed, few of today’s strategic thinkers would even dare to take on such a challenge, and even fewer could make as much sense of the world today as he has done.